The Environmental Case for Extraterrestrial Resources

17 07 2013

During recent travels over the heart of our nation’s fossil fuel development and storage centers, a realization descended upon me in a new and sudden way.  As I peered out of my porthole window at the landscape below, it struck me that a simple glimpse at the current state of our world is the only justification needed for developing extraterrestrial resources.

A picture, as the saying goes, is worth a thousand words:

Drilling Pads

Take a closer look.  Different aspects of the image will no doubt strike individual readers first.  But as for me, I saw for the first time a jarring and unsettling truth.  Quite unexpectedly, I was assaulted by the reality that between agricultural development and subsurface mineral resource exploration and extraction, no native portion of the planet’s surface remained as far as I my eyes could take me.

I reached up and took a picture with my phone, seeing for the first time the image of a planet not new but used – a surface completely consumed or discarded.  It was the very first time I’ve had a negative visceral reaction to the breadth of our civilization’s development of the Earth’s surface.

The thought quickly followed that, with an ever-expanding population and given the current course and nature of our civilization’s growth, this is the least developed our world will ever be, barring some sort of apocalyptic natural disaster.

My mind then immediately turned to the idea of life support.

The Holy Grail of Space Exploration

From a space exploration perspective, the idea of the Closed Ecological Life Support System (CELSS) is a critical one.  The holy grail of human space exploration, CELSSs are a natural, self-sustaining life support system, (e.g., a collection of plants that feed us, purify our waste, and supply our air, while our waste, in turn, feeds the plants and supplies their air).

One can quickly see that possessing functioning CELSS technology would enable our ability to establish long-term settlements on space stations, spacecraft, or colonies on other worlds.  We wouldn’t need constant resupply shipments from Earth.

On a massive scale, the Earth’s biosphere has managed to itself become a CELSS after great spans of geologic time and the cooperative adaptation of biology with it.  Unsurprisingly, our biosphere serves as the very (only) natural template for current CELSS research.

So, like the importance of a spacesuit to a lone astronaut on a spacewalk, what struck me as I gazed our of the aircraft window at our pervasive impact on the environment is that our biosphere is all that stands between us and the great, inhospitable reaches of space.

Damaging our species’ only functioning life support system by compromising our biosphere is a terrifying proposition.  Just as was the case with timber resource utilization early in this nation’s development – the rude awakening that what was perceived to be a limitless resource was instead all-too-finite – so too might it be time we open our eyes to the realities of our finite world from a life support perspective?

The first Earthrise imaged by a human.  B&W, Magazine E, Apollo 8.  (Credit: NASA)

The first Earthrise imaged by a human. B&W, Magazine E, Apollo 8. (Credit: NASA)

Encouraging a Planetary-Perspective Paradigm Shift

Whereas the rationale our society has adopted in implementing better sustainability practices, such as recycling, is to “protect the environment,” I was awakened to the reality that from a planetary perspective a greater truth is the reverse:  It is not humanity that protects the Earth’s “environment,” rather, it’s the Earth’s biosphere (environment) that protects us – from asphyxiation and starvation in orbit about the Sun.

So, if we can encourage a broader (and I dare say more scientific) view of our world in the cosmos, we might all come to view our biosphere not as simply “the Environment” in which we live but instead as a crucial, planet-scale, natural life support system operating to keep us all alive in the dark, unforgiving, and unyielding reaches of space.

Such a paradigm shift, which could be driven by one, simple directive – to preserve our global biosphere as a planetary resource – logically compels our development in two directions:

  1. Minimize the surface area impact of what must be located or conducted on Earth’s surface.
  2. Maximize the impact of that which can be located or conducted off-world.

Should we accomplish the task of even beginning such a conversation, the right sorts of questions will follow:

  • Can we consolidate, enable, and focus mining operations in areas of less biospheric importance?
  • With limited land surface area, can we take advantage of much more plentiful airspace for agriculture, (e.g., vertical farming, or perhaps explore even the possibility of aerostat-based agriculture?)
  • Alternatively, can we increase the use of marine farming (mariculture)?
  • Might not we lessen or reverse the burden of natural resource utilization on Earth’s biosphere via the development of off-world mineral resources?
  • After that, could we begin a shift toward extraterrestrial agriculture and export back to Earth?  (The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, anyone?)

By merely engaging in this mode of thought in a culturally-significant way, it seems possible that not only would we develop and promote the use of extraterrestrial resources, but we could and would simultaneously become smarter about the way we structure our communities and settlements here on Earth.

Where does this lead?  Well, it seems to me that the clearest path is the serious, practical use and implementation of Arcology research, which is something I believe we as a civilization are ready to pursue in earnest.

In other words, an inevitable outcome of leveraging and fully harnessing the technological advances at our fingertips to actively preserve greater portions of our planet’s biosphere would promote our civilization’s growth and maturation along two fronts – the creation of an extraterrestrial infrastructure and economy, and the development of sustainability technologies that would improve life for us all.

A Call for Wiser Expansion

While certainly I’m not the first to voice these sorts of opinions, nor was this the first time I’ve considered these sorts of concepts, there was something fundamentally different about the experience I had as I was flying above majestic portions of the country, witnessing what for the first time appeared to my eyes to be the subtle but pervasive erosion of our species’ only life support infrastructure.

It was the context.

Thinking of the Earth as a closed life support system not from within but from beyond, as a system sustaining us against a vast and threatening cosmos, it struck me that elevating our collective views above and beyond our world’s horizon may be more than just financially lucrative and scientifically fruitful.

In working to shift the burden of our growth off-world, and considering the social perspective shift that doing so will require with respect to the way we view our own civilization, (e.g., as a people for the first time directly connected to an environment that extends beyond our planet), we should reinforce the pursuit by simultaneously cultivating a view of our world’s biosphere as an ultimately rare resource – or perhaps even the rarest natural resource (as the only known, functioning CELSS to-date!).

In doing so, perhaps we can accomplish several worthy objectives at once:

While lengthening the useful span of our planet’s life support system, we could also inspire and challenge ourselves to finally become smarter and wiser about how we populate our world… and in the process, start thinking seriously about how we move beyond.


Pushing Asteroid Mining on the Wow! Signal Podcast

26 06 2013

Just a quick note today on a fun, recent interview I gave with Paul Carr on the Wow! Signal Podcast, where I had the opportunity to discuss the very conceptual genesis of my personal scientific journey as a geologist and space scientist: the lure, importance, and incredible promise of asteroid mining and capitalizing on extraterrestrial resources!


My original 2004 NASA KC135 proposal for an asteroid mineral separation “mining” system. …Still looking for an opportunity to fly this thing…

(Paul is a space systems engineer, skeptical investigator, and a prolific writer who keeps not only the aforementioned podcast but also his own blog and several websites, most of which communicate a fascination with space and life in the cosmos…  Thanks for reaching out, Paul!)

So, for any readers interested in hearing me attempt to talk extemporaneously while simultaneously trying to keep a lid on my enthusiasm for the potential in space resources, now’s your chance. =)

Additionally, I should note that I had the good fortune to share the podcast airspace with engaging planetary system scientist (and dabbler in numerical astrobiology) Dr. Duncan Forgan, as well as Isaac Stott of Stott Space Inc., future asteroid miner and ardent proponent of space resources development.

The only thing that could have made the podcast more of a kick was if the interviews had been temporally-simultaneous and supplied with science-fueling spirits of some kind…  All in good time, I suppose…

Plans afoot for snaring a space rock

2 10 2011

Trajectory of 2008EA9 before and after orbit maneuver. (Credit: Hexi et al., 2011)

Researchers at the Tsinghua University in Beijing recently published a plan just daring enough to work/make people nervous.

After an extensive review of the orbits of thousands of candidate near-Earth objects, the research team headed by Associate Professor Baoyin Hexi identified a small asteroid that with a nudge at the opportune moment would settle into a temporary Earth orbit.

The 410-meter-per-second-boost required to snare 30-foot-wide asteroid 2008EA9 is but a fraction of the propulsion cost required, for instance, for our spacecraft to get to low Earth orbit, (8,000 meters-per-second).

Attempting such a technical feat would be a boon for space logistics and exploration research by providing a simple, local target for investigation by astronauts.  Further, the experience would exponentially improve our asteroid diversion know-how and spur the development of space resource/mining techniques.

Despite the terror-stoking hype that any asteroid-grab project is bound to inspire, the risks in this case are relatively low: few realize that asteroids of similar size (5-10 meters in diameter) hit the Earth’s atmosphere annually.  While still packing the punch of an mid-twentieth century atom-bomb, these objects are small enough to vaporize in the upper atmosphere, and typically no one is the wiser for it.

I say let’s go for it.  Any eccentric, research-minded philanthropists want to drop a fortune on lassoing a giant lump of primordial solar system?

Lockheed Martin’s asteroid gambit

24 09 2010

Orion capsule docked w/ Orion Deep Space Vehicle modification. (Credit: Lockheed Martin)

The Obama Administration’s recent space initiative scraps former President Bush’s Orion moon program and planned moon base in favor of three basic components: Private industry, an asteroid rendezvous by 2025, and a manned Mars orbit by 2035.

Not wasting any time on nostalgia, aerospace industry giant Lockheed Martin, who had been helming the all-but-cancelled Orion spacecraft development, has seized on the suggestion and released a comprehensive proposal for how NASA can make the next off-world visit using their existing (or nearly-existing) Orion technology.

Citing a trinity rationale, “Security, Curiosity, and Prosperity,” Lockheed Martin’s proposal details how two Orion capsules and service modules (or one standard Orion capsule plus a SuperOrion they call the Orion Deep Space Vehicle,) can rendezvous with and explore one of a small class of Near-Earth-Objects (read: asteroids) that happen to swing close to Earth.

Orion spacecraft parked in orbit of an asteroid. (Credit: Lockheed Martin)

So, what does, “Security, Curiosity, and Prosperity” mean?  Lockheed Martin ventures that security is a reason to visit an asteroid so that we can develop necessary interception know-how and experience should we ever have to try and divert one.  Curiosity is reason to visit according to the plan because of the potential scientific boon exploring an asteroid would be for solar system formation research and planetary geology.  Lastly, they mention prosperity due to the fact that there is a very real possibility that “mining” an asteroid for natural resources could be quite lucrative.

What are the pitfalls?  The primary added risk of the asteroid mission over a lunar mission is distance.   Should something mechanically or medically go wrong, the shortest possible emergency return trip is on the order of months instead of days.  There is also a more prolonged exposure to radiation to consider.

However, the risk of an asteroid mission is also significantly reduced compared to a lunar mission in that two return capsules are taken along, so if something goes wrong with one, astronauts can still use the other to get home.  More importantly, there is no landing module, no landing and launch logistics to manage, and therefore no real chance of crashing.  Because an asteroid of this nature is so small (and its gravity weak), astronauts could literally park their Orion spacecraft next to the asteroid and spacewalk over to it.

Personally, I think this is fantastic.  This may just the geologist in me talking, but I think Lockheed Martin’s “Security, Curiosity, Prosperity” concept is a home run.  We really should be developing skills necessary in case we find an inbound asteroid with a high probability of a strike.  (Else, why are we spending so much time and effort looking out for asteroids that might hit us?)  The curiosity factor is a given, and I have personally been championing the “resourcing” of asteroids, (if I can make that a verb,) for years as a way of enabling larger space endeavors while reducing the “resource load” on Earth…

It’s also worth noting that the general experience of traveling through deep space would also be very, very useful experience for future trips to Mars.

So, will NASA go for it?  I think they’d be wise to.  They’ll be hard-pressed to find a more well-motivated mission with acceptable risk, redundancy, and potential payoff.

Why go back to the Moon?

24 02 2010

President Obama has recently scrapped our push to get to the Moon by 2020.  For the most part, I agree with the decision.  However, there is something making a lot of play in the press that I feel the need to address – Namely, the many vocal assertions that there is no good reason to go back to the Moon.  They couldn’t be more wrong.

There is a very simple and pressing reason to go back to the Moon.  It isn’t political and doesn’t make a case for a show of “soft power” against China’s burgeoning space/military space programme.  The real reason for us to go back is what we science types call in-situ resource utilization, or ISRU for short.  To those who aren’t familiar with the phrase, you all understand it as “living off of the land.”

It’s so simple, really, that most people won’t or don’t even think of it.  It’s obvious.  When you go somewhere new, you need to know how to use what’s available to you to survive.  (Or, as the early American colonists discovered, those winters are going to get mighty long.)  If we consider the rest of the solar system as other “New Worlds” to eventually inhabit or as locations to obtain resources, then it only makes sense we learn how to work with what is there.  The Moon is the closest separate planetary body where we can begin to do that.

ISRU techniques are amongst the most important and significantly underdeveloped of our space capabilities right now.  Developing these techniques is not only a practical skill with utility across the solar system, there is money to be made.  -Lots of money, actually, for those who can summon the resources and guts to do it first.

For one, any material under someone’s control in orbit or on another moon/planet is instantly worth $10,000/lb.  Why?  Because that’s how much it costs to launch anything from the surface of Earth.  Then, if you factor in the intrinsic value of whatever the material is, the value just goes up from there.  Not a bad business prospect.

Take the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, for example.  With a veritable planet’s-worth of material floating out there without even the potential of an ecosystem attached to it, the asteroid belt is a guilt-free, virgin Yukon primed for a rush.  Trillions of dollars of resource-able material lie in wait within each asteroid, of which there are hundreds, if not thousands.  Also not a bad business prospect.

So, do we really need to go back to the Moon?  That all depends on your perspective.  It might not directly stimulate a commercial space transport industry like Obama’s new plan will, (which I believe we desperately need to break access to outer space out of the grip of national governments and into the public economy,) but at the same time, whoever owns ISRU will corner the only certain future market there is.  -We know Earth and its capacity to withstand resourcing is finite.

Young Rockefellers are in the wings today.  Obtaining and controlling outer space resources are key.  The Moon is an obvious place to learn how.  That’s why it’s important to go back.

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